Michigan GOP leadership to meet on Mackinac. Only thing missing: GOP leaders
- Michigan GOP hosts Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference
- Top Republican officials skipping event amid party infighting
- GOP activists bash House Republican ties to Rick Snyder
LANSING — One says he’s going camping. Another plans to prepare the family farm for fall harvest. A third cited a “previously scheduled” commitment. Others provided no excuse at all.
They're all Republican leaders in the Michigan Legislature, and they are all skipping the biennial leadership conference from the Michigan Republican Party this weekend on Mackinac Island.
As new party Chair Kristina Karamo prepares for the GOP’s biggest event of the year, the list of planned no-shows includes Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, whose spokesperson cited a personal scheduling conflict he would not disclose, and House Minority Leader Matt Hall, whose office declined an explanation.
Republican Floor Leader Bryan Posthumus will “be on a family camping trip with his wife and kids,” a spokesperson said. Senate Minority Floor Leader Dan Lauwers told Bridge Michigan he has "too much going on this weekend on the farm."
It’s the latest sign of a growing divide between the new grassroots leadership of the state party — which grew out of former President Donald Trump’s populist movement — and elected Republicans, who have already signaled plans to fundraise outside the Michigan GOP because of perceived dysfunction.
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The inability of a once-mighty political “machine” to attract its most prominent elected officials to the island gathering is “shocking,” said John Sellek, a Republican consultant and owner of Harbor Strategic Public Affairs in Lansing.
“That leadership's not going to be the lead speakers at the conference tells us a lot,” he said. “The limited time they have on their hands, they're using to protect themselves, working on their own priorities.”
Bridge reached out to 18 lawmakers who are part of leadership teams in the Legislature. Two confirmed plans to attend the 2023 Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference. Six did not respond.
The other 12 said they won’t go.
And with Congress approaching a critical debt ceiling deal, it's unclear how many members of Michigan’s GOP delegation will attend the conference. Three lawmakers said they won’t be there. U.S. Reps. Tim Walberg, Jack Bergman and John Moolenaar are expected for a panel discussion — but Walberg's office said it depends on if the House schedule “allows it."
That’s a far cry from past years, when the conference drew a who’s who of Michigan Republicans to the sprawling Grand Hotel, along with numerous presidential candidates and other high-profile politicians.
In 2015, the last time the conference coincided with a contested presidential primary, the Michigan GOP drew several contenders, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Sen. Rand Paul and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
The 2023 event is so far scheduled to feature one presidential candidate: Vivek Ramaswamy, who is polling third in the race and gained attention with an aggressive performance in the first GOP debate.
Other announced speakers include actor Jim Caviezel, who stars in the hit movie “Sound of Freedom” and has promoted the false QAnon conspiracy theory, along with 2020 election deniers including filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza and former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake.
Trump, who is running for president again, won’t attend the Mackinac event but is planning to speak to striking union workers in Detroit on Sept. 27.
Karamo, an election denier who lost her 2022 campaign for Secretary of State but refused to concede, has touted the GOP conference as a chance to honor “the traditions of our beloved party” while “cultivating the next generation of Republican thought leaders, party leaders, activists, and elected officials.”
Hard-line conservatives who plan to attend aren’t sweating the absence of the old guard, who they contend have worked to undermine the state party because they no longer control it.
“Kristina Karamo speaks on principle, and that’s something we need,” said state Rep. Steve Carra, a Three Rivers Republican who plans to be at the Mackinac Island gathering. “She has been set up for failure by the deep state.”
A donor divide and Rick Snyder cameo
While the Mackinac Conference is typically a big fundraiser for the Michigan GOP, experts say this year’s event could end up an expensive affair because many of the party’s biggest traditional donors are sitting out as sponsors.
The party has not announced registration numbers, but as of Monday, there were still hotel rooms available at the Grand Hotel.
The Michigan GOP reserved a block for attendees, with rooms ranging from between $1,410 and $2,690.
"It's sad, actually," said Jamie Roe, a longtime GOP consultant from Macomb County, who suggested his year’s event is short on “star attractions” and appears designed to cater to only one wing of the GOP.
“We have a pretty broad party, and I don't think every aspect of the party has been given an opportunity to fully participate this year,” he said.
That may be no accident. Trump loyalists who now run the Michigan GOP have worked to purge so-called establishment Republicans.
While they largely succeeded in that purge, Karamo’s first seven months in office have been plagued by party infighting, including an ongoing feud with her former ally Matthew DePerno, a 2022 state attorney general candidate who has publicly mocked the state party and was recently indicted for an alleged vote machine tampering scheme.
Physical fights have disrupted two Michigan GOP meetings this year, resulting in misdemeanor criminal charges for three party activists.
With the state party struggling to raise funds, legislative leaders are already going around the Michigan GOP to court big-money donors.
House Republicans in June announced that former Gov. Rick Snyder and businessman Bill Parfet will help lead caucus fundraising efforts as Hall works to flip at least two seats next year to regain a majority in the lower chamber.
But Snyder’s role has only deepened divisions between legislative leaders and the Michigan GOP.
Karamo and other state party leaders have blasted the arrangement because Snyder endorsed Democrat Joe Biden over Trump in 2020, and Parfet supported Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s re-election in 2022.
That divide helps explain why Hall and other GOP legislative leaders won’t attend the Mackinac conference, said first-term state Rep. Neil Friske, a Charlevoix Republican who will be a featured speaker at the island event.
“When you surround yourself with people like Snyder and Parfet, it’s pretty hard then to go and be in the same room with Kristina Karamo,” Friske said. “There is a definite disconnect there. Unfortunately it appears our current leadership is not interested in moving forward with a strong, conservative agenda.”
Friske, Carra and fellow “freedom caucus” state Rep. James DeSana of Carleton on Tuesday called on Snyder and Parfet to commit to endorsing the party’s next presidential nominee — which could be Trump — or resign their fundraising posts.
Hall’s office this week defended the fundraising effort, referring back to the minority leader’s June statement that praised Snyder and Parfet as “visionary leaders” who will help House Republicans “unify Michiganders.”
To go or not to go
Republican officials who are skipping this weekend’s Michigan GOP conference stopped short of bashing Karamo or the state party. Many simply suggested the island event was not a priority for them this year.
House Assistant Floor Leader Graham Filler reminisced about helping usher then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney off the ferry and onto the island for the 2011 convention but said he "hadn't really thought that much about" this weekend’s event and does not plan to go.
Half of the state’s GOP congressional delegation is expected at this year’s conference, but their planned appearance could be derailed if the U.S. House remains in session over the weekend.
U.S. Reps. Bill Huizenga, John James and Lisa McClain won’t be on the congressional panel and have already said they do not plan to attend.
“We figured the schedule would be dicey with the fiscal year ending this month, so we decided not to make any plans that would have to be canceled,” said McClain spokesperson Dan Wunderlich.
At least one traditional Republican is expected to be campaigning on the island: former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers of Brighton, who is running for the U.S. Senate to succeed retiring Democrat Debbie Stabenow. It’s not yet clear whether he’ll have any formal role at the conference or simply work the crowds.
State Sen. Jim Runestad, a White Lake Republican and assistant minority caucus chair, is the highest-ranking legislative official who told Bridge he plans to attend the Mackinac conference.
He expects far fewer lawmakers than previous years because of "concerns about how the state party is going to be able to manage things," Runestad said.
"I had my concerns, but the concerns are getting allayed as it looks like they're getting more speakers," he told Bridge. "I'll see when I get there how all the logistics are done, but it seems like they're coming together."
Also planning to attend is Rep. Andrew Fink of Adams Township, who serves as assistant floor leader for the House GOP and this week announced a campaign for the Michigan Supreme Court.
"Whether you're running for any given office or not, it's a great opportunity to meet with other people who care a lot about our state," Fink said. "Obviously, I'll be looking at meeting people and familiarizing them with the campaign I'm going to be running."
Editor's note: This story was updated at 8:46 a.m. Sept. 20 after U.S. Reps. John Moolenaar and Jack Bergman confirmed appearances at the conference.
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